Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

An Interview with Maggie Pill (Peg Herring) by E. B. Davis

In this cozy mystery, the first of a series, middle-aged sisters Faye and Barb decide to open a detective agency in Allport, their small town in northern Lower Michigan. They agree that Retta, their baby sister, will NOT be included, since she tends to take over any organization she's part of. Sweetly but firmly, Retta will tell you what you should do, could do, and will do.

The agency does not take off, and Faye reconsiders the decision to leave Retta out, since as the widow of a slain state trooper, she's got contacts all over Michigan. Retta's only too willing to "help" and immediately begins second-guessing their decisions, which leads to sparks between her and Barb.

The sisters finally get a decent case: finding a man who apparently murdered his wife years ago and has been on the run ever since. As they try to investigate what happened, they're opposed at every turn. Local cops doubt the "lady detectives" and most of the town is convinced Neil Brown killed his wife and brother-in-law in a fit of anger. The murder victims' father has no doubt Brown is guilty, and he's furious that anyone might take a different view.

Still, someone wants to keep the sisters from finding Brown and digging into what really happened the day he left Allport. As the sisters piece things together, the new police chief seems like a possible ally. The problem is that both Barb and Retta are attracted to him, and Retta seldom meets a man she can't get. Accepting defeat in that arena, Barb tries to concentrate on the case and prove Brown isn't guilty of murder. That leads to a show-down with a desperate killer in a remote, dangerous spot. Only Faye and Retta can save her, and they have no idea where she is.

The Sleuth Sisters mystery series comprises seven books, starting with The Sleuth Sisters. They were published from 2014—2019. After reading the first book, I was hooked. There are three sisters, in age order, Barb, Faye, and Retta. Each has a distinctive personality and have very different lifestyles. But in terms of sleuthing, those difference are a plus since they have different talents, and they know each other very well. 

After retiring as an assistant D.A. in Tacoma, Washington, Barb retires at 52 and goes back to her hometown of Allport, Michigan, where her two younger sisters live. She’s financially sound so she doesn’t respond positively to Faye’s suggestion of starting a detective agency. Finally, Barb agrees because Faye is not financially sound. She’s an office manager who always seems to lose her jobs. Faye’s husband is on disability due to a jobsite accident. Although seemingly softhearted, Barb is also bored with retirement. They agree that their baby sister Retta cannot be allowed to join the agency due to her domineering personality, which of course doesn’t last long.

Please welcome Maggie Pill (also known as mystery writer Peg Herring) to WWK.       E. B. Davis

The last book in the series, Captured, Escape, Repeat was published in 2019. That’s only two years ago. Is there any chance of an addition to the series? (had to ask!)

Thanks for inviting me here, Elaine. The answer to that question is probably no. Two years ago, as I was doing final edits for Captured, Escape, Repeat, my sister died suddenly. Since then, I haven’t felt I could face another episode of the Sleuth Sisters. She was the person who knew before anyone else, even my husband, that I was writing, and she was always the first reader. It just doesn’t feel right to start another “sister adventure” without her. 

Why do you write under different names?

As Peg Herring, I had a traditional writing career with an agent, a publisher, and a fan base. I wanted to try cozy mystery, but I wasn’t sure I could be funny, and I didn’t know if my publisher would appreciate the effort. Independent publishing was starting to become feasible and respectable, so I took my grandmother’s name (Margaret Pillsbury), made it shorter, and published The Sleuth Sisters as an e-book. Soon someone wrote to say they’d like it in paperback to give to a relative, so I learned how to make a “real” book. After that, someone asked for it in audio. When I put the book up for auditions, I was lucky enough to get Cerny American, a respected studio in Chicago, interested. They chose the three voice actors who did the audio books, doing a great job matching voices and personalities. Soon Maggie Pill was as popular as Peg Herring, and now I have tons of fun and frustration keeping up with the demands of both.

When the series opens, we find that Barb, former officer of the court, is in fact a criminal. Barb would defend herself by saying the rules of grammar were broken and she is merely fixing them. How does Barb fix grammar by breaking the law?

Come on, we’ve all been there (well, maybe not). I’m a retired English teacher, so I often have to turn away from grammatical horrors on signs and notices. It would only take a second to fix most of them. Barb goes out in the dead of night and corrects errors on signs in her community. She sees her “Correction Events” as a public service.

(Funny story: When I got a job in teaching, I succeeded a very proper grammarian. The principal confided that one day when she called in sick, he went down to let the substitute into her room and found his latest letter to the staff in her desk drawer, liberally corrected with red ink. Moral: we can’t help it. Red ink is in our blood.)

The sisters’ hometown is Allport, MI. You are very specific about its geography. Is it a real place or based on a real place?

I live in northern Lower Michigan (near the tip of the mitten). To get a location I could manipulate as I needed to, I simply slid two counties apart and inserted a new one. Allport is a combination of Alpena and Rogers City, both cities on the Lake Huron shoreline. With a fictional town and county, I don’t have to worry about offending anyone in real life.

Barb says she used her brain to get ahead. Faye worked hard and hasn’t been very successful (at least financially). Retta, short for Margaretta, was pretty, ambitious, and financially sound. But she has her own vision of the world. Would Retta agree with Barb’s assessment?

The thing about sisters is they share so much and yet turn out so differently. Retta has had her share of sorrow, but she has a lighter outlook than her sisters, which makes her more prone to take chances. Retta enjoys the company of men and likes being spoiled, or at least appreciated. She isn’t shy about using flirtation as an investigative device. She would say that Barb never learned to let go and have fun because she’s always worried about propriety. And she’s probably right.

When they finally get a paying client, who asks them to find her brother, the case takes them to the boonies of upper Michigan. One of our writers, James M. Jackson has a home in the UP. I had to laugh at your description of the area. Is it as bleak as you describe? Are accommodations that lacking?

Amenities in the U.P. aren’t lacking, they’re just spread out. It’s heavily forested, lightly populated by humans but full of animal life. To balance the lack of “civilization,” nature provides breath-taking scenery, peace, and quiet.

As a lawyer, Barb isn’t a warm fuzzy character, unlike her sister Faye, who has a large heart and even Retta, who loves her big fuzzy dog. But, Barb seems to lead her life in service to others. Isn’t that a way of showing her warmth and care?

I think Barb cares too much. In order to keep her heart from breaking over the way people treat each other, she developed a protective shell. I imagine those who work in the justice system need to do that or be depressed all the time about things they can’t fix.

What’s an ice spud?

It’s a tool for chopping holes in the ice on a lake. Imagine a hoe straightened out.

Retta was a wife to a policeman killed in the line of duty. She became an activist for increasing protection for police and co-authored a book on the subject. Although she now seems well connected and a great resource for the detective agency, before her husband’s death, was she a housewife and mother?

Yes. It’s interesting to speculate on what she’d have been like if her husband had lived. He was a “manly man” and very protective of her, so she might have continued to be his little sweetie forever. Tragic events make us adjust our view of life and even our way of life. Retta came out of her tragedy still a “sweetie” but with the courage to face both crowds of media people and, if necessary, bad guys with guns.

Faye at one point gets kidnapped by a nonviolent, inept kidnapper, Gabe. After overpowering and getting information out of him, she mentors him. Gabe becomes a series character doing odd jobs for the sisters. How did that happen?

I liked Gabe. He was never meant to be more than a scene or two, but he reminded me of kids I’d had in my high school classes, kids who weren’t bad people but still ended up in jail. In keeping with the sisters’ personalities, they defeat Gabe when he’s doing wrong and then support him when he decides to do what’s right.

Never-been-married Barb gets to know the new police chief, Rory Neuencamp. What type of alliance do they form professionally and personally?

It’s a bit trite, but cozy sleuths need a connection to law enforcement to be realistic. I wanted a cop who’d help the sisters out, and in the first book, it underscored the sibling rivalry between Barb and Retta to have them both interested in the new man in town. Rory is a capable cop who is willing to accept Barb’s independent spirit, so they work together well.

What’s wrong with Faye’s dog Buddy? Why does Barb feel like he allows her to live in her own home?

As a stray who’s probably been abused, Buddy doesn’t take guff from anyone. He’s one of those dogs who has his “people,” Faye and to a lesser extent Faye’s husband Dale. He’d prefer that everyone else keep their distance. (My daughter had a Rottweiler like that. He wouldn’t bite me, but I was 100% sure he didn’t like me.)

 Barb claims Faye is too soft-hearted, but Barb ends up adopting a stray cat. Is she a hypocrite? Why does she call the cat The Brat?

Barb hasn’t had the option of keeping a pet as an adult, since she lived alone and had a demanding job. Still, they were raised on a farm, so she’s used to having animals around. I see the stray cat, Brat, so called because she’s so independent, as a sign that these days Barb is becoming what she couldn’t be as an assistant DA, patient, compassionate, and loving.

Retta’s dog is large. What type is he? How did he get his name?

Styx is a brown Newfoundland, and he’s based on my brother’s dog Terra (short for Holy Terror). It felt like Retta would choose a “fancy” name for her dog (Styx is the river in Greek mythology one must cross to reach the afterlife) while Faye would choose something easy traditional, like Buddy.

How did Retta find out about Barb’s secret activities? Why did she insist on helping? What was the deal?

Retta finds out about Barb’s Correction Events by accident. (Faye has figured it out too but would never say anything.) Retta understands Barb’s need to make things right in her small way, but of course, she isn’t above a little blackmail. She wants to be fully part of the agency, so she uses her knowledge to her advantage. There’s a lot of humor in Barb’s adventures, and fans often comment on them. Many, many people would like to do what she does, so they live vicariously through Barb and her pots of paint.

Why does Faye’s mother-in-law like her better than her children?

She doesn’t, but she recognizes who will take care of her and cater to her wishes. Most of her children ignore her, but Faye has a strong sense of duty. Though the old woman is demanding and mercurial, Faye does her best to make her happy, which is kind of her approach to the world.

How easy is it for younger next of kin to check their elders into nursing care and take control of their assets?

I’m not sure it would be easy, but in cozy mysteries, things get simplified. I do know of cases where elderly people objected strongly to being institutionalized. Doctors have a large say in whether a person remains independent, so I figured if a deceitful relative began a campaign of disinformation with the locals and then used drugs to create confusion, it could work.

Why does Barb ask Faye’s son Cramer to hack for her? You wouldn’t think a retired D.A. would ask anyone to break the law.

She has the best of intentions…Isn’t that how we all justify ourselves when we do wrong?

Barb has two cars. One she considers her baby. What are they and why does she only drive one in the winter?

In Michigan, roads are salted liberally all winter long to melt the ice and snow. Any car with a metal body, like Barb’s ’57 Chevy, would corrode if driven in winter, so she stores it and drives her everyday car, a Ford Edge.

What are some of the arcane things Faye knows from reading romance novels?

Romance novels aren’t my forte, but Faye would say they teach you about relationships. Also, authors love to slip in historical information and details about careers, recipes, hobbies, etc., so a person picks up bits and pieces she doesn’t even realize she’s learning. My first novel as Peg Herring was set in Scotland during Macbeth’s kingship. I came upon crannogs (castles set in the center of a lake for defensive purposes) and had to put one into Macbeth’s Niece. The information was simply too cool not to share.

When Lars, an FBI agent boyfriend of Retta’s, is given the choice of an overseas assignment or returning to Arizona, we never find out which he chose. What happens?

That was supposed to be part of Book 8, which never happened due to reasons already given. Lars would have been a great addition to the Smart Detective Agency, but he’s also a good reason for Retta to leave Allport, giving the sisters a reason to retire from sleuthing. We may never know.Thanks again for the opportunity. You asked great questions!


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

good interview, Elaine. Maggie, I look forward to meeting the sisters and their pets.

Molly MacRae said...

Love this interview, love Maggie's (and Peg's) books!

Grace Topping said...

Excellent interview, Maggie and Elaine.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Great interview, Maggie and Elaine. Maggie, your sister series sounds terrific. Will add the series to my "to read" list.

KM Rockwood said...

I love being introduced to authors I have somehow missed. All the better when they have a whole series I can look into.